NBA MVP rankings: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic in mix, but Joel Embiid is quarter-pole leader

You might not realize it, but we’ve reached at the quarter point of this truncated NBA season. How much can we trust what we’ve seen so far? That’s probably a case-by-case question, but however you feel about the evidence that has been admitted in a wobbly season to date, the end-of-season awards will be affected, in some capacity, by this initial stretch. 

LaMelo Ball has at least laid the foundation for his Rookie of the Year bid. Mikal Bridges, Andrew Wiggins, De’Andre Hunter, Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, Collin Sexton, Chris Boucher and Julius Randle have assumed early position in what is a really intriguing Most Improved Player race. Doc Rivers, Quin Snyder, Tyronn Lue, Taylor Jenkins, J.B. Bickerstaff and Tom Thibodeau are arguably the top early Coach of the Year candidates. 

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As for MVP, the biggie, this is going to be a fascinating battle that likely comes down to the very end. So many great players are having amazing seasons so far — career seasons in fact — that it’s almost impossible to flesh out a hierarchy at this juncture. But we’re going to do it anyway. Entering play on Wednesday, Jan. 27, here is where I believe the MVP race stands.

The Philadelphia 76ers are 12-2 when Embiid plays. They are 0-4 when he doesn’t. The Sixers are outscoring opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor. When Embiid is off the floor, they are being outscored by 10.2 points per 100. Do the math, and Embiid is worth north of 21 points per 100 in Philadelphia’s favor. 

Entering Wednesday, Embiid ranks sixth in scoring (27.7) and eighth in rebounds per game (11.5). He is shooting 55 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3 on three attempts per game. You ready for this? Embiid is shooting a startling 58.7 percent from the mid-range, per, which is the best mark in the league among players taking at least two such shots a game. 

For some perspective on just how wild that stat is, Kevin Durant, the greatest mid-range shooter ever in the middle of what is, at the moment, the best shooting season of his career, is shooting 50.6 percent between the free throw line extended and the 3-point line. 

When you’re shooting more than eight percentage points better that Kevin Durant from anywhere, let alone from his sweetest of sweet spots, you’re on fire. When you’re a 7-foot center who is also dominating on the defensive end and has his team at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, you’re the MVP frontrunner. 

LeBron hasn’t won an MVP since 2013, and I think that’s going to play a big factor this season. We’ve tried for too long to put other players in his class, and if voter fatigue works in the way of canceling out guys who’ve recently won, then it can work the other way in propelling a guy like LeBron, whom voters have to be tired of snubbing. 

You want narrative? LeBron is 36 years old in his 18th season and still the best player player in the world. You want winning? The Lakers are the best team in the league. You want impact? When LeBron is on the court without Anthony Davis, the Lakers are still winning those minutes by 6.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. When you flip that, and put Davis on the court without LeBron, the Lakers are a minus-3.5 per 100. 

LeBron’s stats look pedestrian by his standards: 25.2 points a night, 7.9 rebounds, 7.4 assists, which — ho-hum — makes him the only player in the league averaging at least 25-7-7 on better than 40 percent 3-point shooting. 

Oh yeah, did we mention that LeBron is shooting a career-high 6.6 3s per game and making them at a career-high 41.2 percent clip? He’s also playing his backside off on defense. For the effort alone, in a season in which everyone in the world expected him to coast through the regular season, LeBron is going to garner a lot of votes. If the Lakers finish as the No. 1 seed and LeBron keeps up this kind of activity (still a question) and production (he can do this in his sleep), given how overdue he is for his fifth MVP, LeBron is a great bet to end up winning this thing. 

You can make a strong case that Jokic should be at the top of this list. If the Nuggets were a bit better than their 10-7 record entering Wednesday, he probably would be. Jokic is fourth in the league in assists per game, a category he was leading most of the season until a couple teams started figuring out you can’t double-team one of the greatest passers ever without getting diced to pieces, which in turn leaves him with single coverage more often, which unlocks him as a scorer. 

This dilemma is at the core of Jokic’s domination. Entering Wednesday, Jokic and Luka Doncic are the only players averaging at least 25 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, but Jokic is doing it with a 29 percent usage rate, which is a career high for him but still well south of Doncic’s 35.4 rate. 

Jokic has been on an inevitable path to superstardom the past few years. He’s already been one of the most dangerous playoff players in the league, and now he’s having the best regular season of his life. Once Denver starts winning a bit more, which is a good bet to happen, Jokic could very well shoot to the top of this list. 

4. Kevin Durant

Durant is having the best season of anyone on this list, and I’m not sure it’s even debatable. Entering play on Wednesday, he’s averaging 30.1 points per night, good for second in the league, to go with 7.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.4 blocks. 

After some 18 months without playing in an NBA game, Durant doesn’t appear to have lost a step on either end, and the Nets have not had to limit his workload; his 32.3 usage rate is the second-highest mark of his career. He’s shooting 52 percent from the field and just under 45 percent from 3, the latter also by far a career high. 

Entering Wednesday, Durant is scoring a laughably efficient 130.8 points per 100 shot attempts, thanks to a 59.3 effective field-goal percentage, per CTG, which both represent the second-best marks of his career. The Nets, who are a plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor, fall to minus-7.6 per 100 when he isn’t playing. 

You wonder how James Harden coming to Brooklyn might affect Durant’s candidacy in the long run. Might they split some votes? Might Durant take it a bit easier as we get deeper into the season? Those are questions for later. Right now, the one reason — the only reason — Durant is not on top of this list is Brooklyn’s 11-8 record. The No. 5 seed in the East just isn’t going to get it done, but I suspect that will change very soon. 

You could argue Leonard above Durant, or even Jokic, but No. 5 feels right for a guy who will likely lose some votes to Paul George, is behind LeBron James in the standings and who, frankly, isn’t a major part of any NBA conversation unless he’s about to be traded. That shouldn’t matter, but it does. Leonard, in terms of daily, national buzz, remains the most slept-on superstar maybe ever. 

I bet there are a lot of people out there, in fact, who just assume Leonard is doing his usual load-management thing. But he isn’t. He’s played in 15 of the Clippers’ 18 games, and they are 12-3 in those contests. 

Entering Wednesday, Leonard is the only player in the league averaging at least 25 points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals per game. The Clippers are plus-10.1 points during his minutes, the best mark of anyone on this list. Extrapolate that to per 100 possessions, and the Clippers are plus-15 in Kawhi’s minutes against minus-7.6 when he’s off the court, per CTG. That is better than a 22-point differential per 100 possessions, the most significant discrepancy attached to anyone on this list. 

Keep an eye on …

Stephen Curry: Fourth in the league in scoring and he’s starting to heat up from 3 — 47 percent over his last four games. If the Warriors find a way to string some wins together after enduring the toughest schedule in the league to start the season, Curry could become a hot name in this conversation. 
Jaylen Brown: Brown has, to this point, skipped right past the All-Star leap and landed smack dab in the MVP conversation. Entering Wednesday, Brown is averaging 30.4 points per game on 47 percent 3-point shooting. Those are rub-your-eyes-to-make-sure-you-aren’t-seeing-things numbers. Brown has the Celtics at 10-6, currently No. 2 in the East, despite Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker missing a combined 17 games. Frankly, Brown should be in the top five of this conversation, but who are you going to take out? Besides that, I think voters would ultimately have a problem awarding MVP to a guy who hasn’t even made an All-Star team yet. 
Luka Doncic: Doncic was most people’s favorite to win this award before the season, and he’s putting up his usual monster numbers. But the scoring is slightly down and he’s shooting just 28 percent from 3. Also, the Mavericks are under .500 entering Wednesday with just the 16th-ranked offense. 
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Voter fatigue strikes here, plus the fact that Giannis is down in points, rebounds and assists from last season. We’re splitting hairs here as Giannis is still averaging 27-10-5 on 54 percent shooting, but to win three MVPs in a row you have to have a flawless case. 
Donovan Mitchell: He’s not an MVP-caliber player yet, but he’s great nonetheless and (probably) the best player on a Jazz team that is the best team in the league not named the Lakers at the moment. That puts him at least in the conversation, but at 23 points a game on 39 percent 3-point shooting, he’s got a big hill to climb. Paul George: Having a fantastic season, but almost impossible to win MVP when you’re not the best player on your own team. 
James Harden: See Paul George.

Published: 2021-01-27 18:37:39

Tags: #NBA #MVP #rankings #LeBron #James #Kevin #Durant #Nikola #Jokic #mix #Joel #Embiid #quarterpole #leader


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